The best thrillers set in exotic locations

The Books I Picked & Why

Waking Up in Medellin

By Kathryn Lane

Book cover of Waking Up in Medellin

Why this book?

The tropical atmosphere of contemporary Medellin, Colombia is the setting for the first book in the Nikki Garcia corporate espionage thriller series. Still reeling from her young son’s tragic death, savvy international auditor Nikki Garcia accepts an assignment to investigate fraud allegations at the Colombian affiliate of a multinational corporation. I loved Nikki’s sharp-edged inner voice and canny observations.

The impeccable cultural details really caught my attention. For example, right in the first scene, Nikki watches a wealthy businessman light a cigar. From the Churchill brand to the way he lights it with a strip of cedarwood to the way he makes her wait, not only could I see the scene in my mind’s eye, but I could smell the tang of burning wood and tobacco and resent his snobby attitude. So. Well. Done.

Infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is long gone from Medellin, but his dangerous legacy is not forgotten. As the plot unfolds, Nikki heads into a maze riddled with dark money, high stakes corruption, and concealed motives, as well as a possible love interest. When she is kidnapped, the odds of survival are not in her favor.

I met author Kathryn Lane, who is originally from Mexico, at a writer’s conference where we discovered a mutual love of writing strong female protagonists and all things Mexico. I’m not the only fan of her books: Waking Up in Medellin won 2017’s Best Fiction Book of the Year from the Killer Nashville International Mystery Writers' Conference.

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Thief of Souls: An Inspector Lu Fei Mystery

By Brian Klingborg

Book cover of Thief of Souls: An Inspector Lu Fei Mystery

Why this book?

This book really came as a surprise; the kind of surprise where you can’t turn the pages fast enough. For one thing, the setting is completely unique. It’s China, but not Beijing or another location that Western audiences would easily recognize. No, the first Inspector Lu Fei mystery takes us to Raven Valley, outside Harbin, China in a cold and unlovely part of the country.

Lu Fei is the deputy chief of the Public Security Bureau there, where a young woman’s murder upends the cycle of boredom and drinking. Both security and Communist Party officials from Beijing descend on Raven Valley and Lu is soon caught between his old boss in Harbin, who hates his guts, and the upwardly mobile Beijing officials who will take credit for his work if he solves the murder and stick a knife in his ribs if he doesn’t.

Having studied China during my 30-year career as an intelligence officer, I was awed by the way author Klingborg absolutely nailed China’s labyrinthine political system. No one believes in the system’s own propaganda but it’s a steamroller that crushes dissent and imagination.

China’s modernization is also critical to the plot. A family can have designer clothes but not indoor plumbing. Not only is Thief of Souls a riveting whodunit, but in my view, it’s an insider’s view of today’s paradoxical China, written in a lush, gripping style. 

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Trouble in Nuala

By Harriet Dorothy Steel

Book cover of Trouble in Nuala

Why this book?

I love the combination of a historical mystery with a little-known location, but this book also charmed me with a spare but fluid writing style. Ceylon in the 1930s under British rule (today Ceylon is the independent nation of Sri Lanka) sets the first book in the addictive Inspector Shanti de Silva mystery series in a riveting yet mostly overlooked moment in history. Add a superbly written cast of characters and set them at odds against each other, and I’m hooked on the whole series.

De Silva is the head of a 3-person police force in the smallish city of Nuala where he must straddle the divide between the local population and his British bosses. Reports of a cruel tea plantation owner lead to a missing worker and the owner’s suspicious debt. A dubious business associate, a frazzled wife, and a chatty mynah bird all combine to add layers of complication.

As I read Trouble in Nuala, I couldn’t help favorably comparing it to the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana. But Nuala in the 1930s offers more depth as the end of the colonial era simmers just over the horizon. Overall, I simply fell in love with the unique setting and this subtly clever crime fighter.

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Recipes for Love and Murder

By Sally Andrew

Book cover of Recipes for Love and Murder

Why this book?

Having travelled in Africa, I’m always keen to find books set on the continent. It’s a bonus if suspense is involved and a double bonus if the story hinges on the setting. This book gets high marks in both departments. It was a better immersive experience than if I’d rented an Airbnb and watched the action unfold from the front porch.

Rural South Africa is home to advice columnist and cooking authority Tannie Maria (Tannie meaning Auntie, the respectful Afrikaans address for a woman older than you) in the first book in this unique and extraordinary series. A middle-aged widow, she offers advice and recipes to the lovelorn and others who write the local newspaper.

One letter-writer is a woman desperate to escape her abusive husband: an echo of Tannie Maria’s own fraught past. When the woman is murdered, Tannie Maria becomes dangerously entwined in the investigation, despite the best efforts of one striking detective determined to keep her safe.

From clothing to food to the animals who lurk in the night, this book brings you inside Tannie Maria’s world and makes you welcome. The descriptions were sensational. Basically, I absolutely loved it. 

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Death on Paradise Island: Fiji Islands Mysteries 1

By B.M. Allsopp

Book cover of Death on Paradise Island: Fiji Islands Mysteries 1

Why this book?

The South Pacific nation of Fiji is a magical place, as I found out many years ago on a scuba trip that evolved into a circuit of the main island of Viti Levu. For tourists, the island chain offers the gold standard of tropical paradise resorts, but the story for the Fijians is considerably more complicated. The islands are widely scattered, race relations led to government coups, economic opportunities are limited, and old ways are under pressure from modern expectations.

Using cultural elements like canoe racing, as well as a foreboding sense of the conflict inherent in Fijian life today, Fiji becomes a marvelous place for trouble. I could almost smell the hibiscus! And the sunscreen! This story nearly had me booking a flight before I was halfway through.

Fiji’s complexities are woven into the plot, which would be impossible to set anywhere else. Modern beach fun and age-old traditions collide as detective Josefa “Joe” Horseman investigates the murder of a young housemaid at a resort on one of Fiji’s remote islands. From the victim’s cast of admirers to shady characters exploiting the location, the case is an endless mess.

Joe is a former national rugby star just returned from a year of police training abroad. He’s the entire country’s local hero. His elevated position in Fijian society, and the expectations he must contend with, are just another way this book did such a fabulous job of taking me on the trip of a lifetime.

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